Sunday, August 30, 2015

Damaged Women, Damaged Lives

At this point, we've pretty much heard it all.  From the Republican Party's vicious (and biologically ignorant) war on women to the young men at a Sigma Nu fraternity party at the University of Central Florida chanting "Let's go rape some bitches, let's go rape some sluts"; from Rush Limbaugh's repugnant slut shaming of Sandra Fluke to the misogynistic delusion that Planned Parenthood might be giving away free smartphones to every woman who comes in for an abortion, a perverse perspective on human sexuality has conservatives firmly in its grip.

Whether we're talking about a black women's book club that got kicked off a Napa Valley Wine Train "for laughing too much" or Donald Trump Twitter trolling Megyn Kelly with a tweet that says "The bimbo is back," the hateful message is clear. Women's lives may matter, but why should men care?

Consider the signs that were seen hanging in front of a house near Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia this summer.

How does one counter such cretinous refusals to treat women with respect? When logic and legislation fail, one can try coating sexual education with a healthy dose of humor and/or sarcasm.

Trying to shame arrogant young men for their boorish behavior has become a lost cause. As rape culture has gained a steady foothold on American campuses, among law enforcement officers (whose job is to protect and serve rather than entrap and assault), and in a culture which refers to men and women alike as "bitches," this lack of basic respect for another human being has led to a sorry state affairs that could be called Fifty Shades of Dysfunctional Family Life.

Part of the problem is that many men see no reason to take any responsibility for their words and actions. They expect women to be codependent, enabling, and submissive.

Some men find it remarkably easy to ignore the consequences of their deeds, not caring about the tough psychological work many women must do as they struggle to pull their lives back together. Danica Dillon, an erotic dancer and porn star who claims to have had two sexual encounters with Josh Duggar (while his wife was pregnant) states that:
 “He was manhandling me, basically tossing me around like I was a rag doll. It was very traumatic. I’ve had rough sex before, but this was terrifying. I actually really hope that his wife leaves him and takes his children away from him and leaves him a lonely, bitter man. I don’t think he deserves happiness.”
* * * * * * * * *
I mention these incidents because a new comedy written and directed by Paul Weitz shows three generations of women dealing with the mess thrust upon them by a narcissistic, arrogant, man-boy (Nat Wolff) who has impregnated Sage (Julia Garner). When the young woman approaches her wise-ass, lesbian grandmother (Lily Tomlin), she learns that money can't solve every problem.

As the movie begins, the feisty Elle is in a curious predicament. Having paid off all of her credit card debt, she's just kicked her most recent girlfriend (Judy Greer) out of her home. Still mourning the loss of her long-time lover, the last thing she expects is to have to deal with a teenage granddaughter who is scared and lacks emotional spine.

Julia Garner as Sage in Grandma

Taking her granddaughter under her wing, Elle promptly heads for the young man's home. Following an unpleasant confrontation with the would-be father, the two women set out on a day-long adventure in pursuit of the necessary funds.

The script for Grandma is a solid piece of unsentimental writing that does a fine job of rebutting the conservative mindset that would like people to believe that having an abortion is a frivolous decision. As Weitz explains:
"The film is female driven. According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of 2008, 30% of women had had an abortion by the age of 45. So it's unlikely that most people don't at least know someone who has faced the question of whether or not to end an unintended pregnancy. The film doesn't make light of the issue. It puts it in the context of the characters, who all have their own perspectives towards the issue. It is largely about moving on from loss through wit and empathy and the ability to say screw you. I just hope a splinter of it will lodge in their memory."
Elle (Lily Tomlin) and Sage (Julia Garner) try to raise enough
money for the young woman to get an abortion in Grandma

While Grandma benefits from magnificent performances by Tomlin and Sam Elliott (as an old flame from her hippie-houseboat days), the fiercest fire comes from Marcia Gay Harden as Elle's daughter (and Sage's mother), Judy. A real piece of work, Judy is the kind of maniacally driven, fire-breathing businesswoman who has lost most of her humanity.

Marcia Gay Harden as Judy in Grandma

Playwrights and composers often talk about writing for a particular person's "voice." In the case of Grandma, Weitz has done a stunning job of tailoring Elle's character so that it fits flawlessly with Lily Tomlin's persona. Not only is her delivery as dry and caustic as ever, she is the perfect person to play an iconoclastic, weed-smoking lesbian grandmother (just watch her priceless interaction with a bratty pro-life protester). At 75, Tomlin is at the top of her brittle and brilliantly sarcastic game.

In supporting roles, Judy Greer scores strongly as Elle's most recent partner, Olivia, while Laverne Cox makes an appearance as one of Elle's tattoo artist friends. Although Grandma features a beautiful cameo performance by the late Elizabeth Pena, the film is so carefully synced to Tomlin's talents that it's her show all the way. Here's the trailer:

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As part of its Sandbox Series for developing new works, the San Francisco Playhouse recently presented the world premiere of 1-2-3 at the Tides Theatre. Written by Lila Rose Kaplan and directed by Lauren English, this four-character play depicts the sibling rivalries and personal neuroses of three sisters who have grown up under extraordinary circumstances. The reason each character is referred to by a number is that, whenever they are moved to another foster home, they take on new names (often in the hope that it will make their new foster families and classmates like them).

Jessica Bates as "1" in 1-2-3 (Photo by: Fei Cai) 

In addition to their individual and collective emotional baggage, these three sisters are permanently attached to a social stigma: their parents have been imprisoned for acts of domestic terrorism (killing people was an unintended consequence of planting a bomb). As a result, contact with either parent is iffy at best.
  • "1" (whose mother instructed her to look after her younger siblings) takes an interest in history while acting as a surrogate parent
  • "2" tries to lose her anger and/or express herself through dance.
  • "3" becomes obsessed with recording life on handheld cameras and smartphones, eventually working for a needier-than-thou reality television producer in Los Angeles.
Luke (Jeremy Cahn) and "2" (Tristan Cunningham) learn to
communicate through ballroom dancing in 1-2-3(Photo by: Fei Cai)

A threat to the cohesiveness of the three sisters materializes in the form of Luke (Jeremy Kahn), the sweet, shy young man who waits tables in his mother's cafe. Because Luke's mother is a ballroom dancer, he has learned quite a bit about various dance styles. When confronted with "2" (a raw bundle of nerves and confusion nursing some severe emotional wounds), he manages to coax her out of her shell by teaching "2" how to dance the cha-cha.

As the years ;progress, Luke and "2" become a competitive ballroom dancing team on the brink of winning an international competition, However, while Luke wants to get married and settle down, "2" still refuses to wed..

Meanwhile, "1" becomes a teacher.who is mortified when after being freed from jail, her father is refused entrance to her school (where he is scheduled to be a guest speaker).

After a depressed and disillusioned Luke arrives in Los Angeles for a visit, a desperate "3" (who doesn't know the difference between techno music and salsa) attempts to set her brother-in-law up for a job interview where Luke can teach dancing to amateur reality show contestants . She also attempts to seduce him while he is mourning the death of his relationship with her older sister).

"3" (Devin Shacket) and "1" (Jessica Bates)
in a scene from 1-2-3 (Photo by: Fei Cai) 

Lila Rose Kaplan's meticulous plotting and strong writing show a keen awareness of Sir Walter Scott's comment, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive!"  Jessica Bates ("1") showed the strongest levels of intellect and maturity among the three sisters with Tristan Cunningham ("2") obviously the most athletic and movement-oriented of the sisters (I'm running out of superlatives to describe this talented artist's work). Devin Shacket's "3" suffered the tragic consequences of having far too much stress and not enough love in her life. As always, Jeremy Kahn was pliable and reliable in his approach to accessing Luke's conflicted emotions.

Subtitled "a play about abandonment and ballroom dancing," 1-2-3 has the fierce dramatic potential to become more fully realized in subsequent productions. For now, it's an impressive world premiere.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Shark of Another Color

On August 31, 1928, when The Threepenny Opera had its world premiere at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Kurt Weill's music scored strongly with audiences in Berlin. Inspired by John Gay's 1728 ballad opera (The Beggar's Opera), Bertolt Brecht's biting lyrics depicted the shockingly amoral behavior of the lower classes in Victorian England.

One song in particular (The Ballad of Mack The Knife) became an international standard after being translated into English by Marc Blitzstein for the show's 1956 long-running off-Broadway production at the Theater De Lys (whose cast included Lotte Lenya, Jerry Orbach, Bea Arthur, Ed Asner, Charlotte Rae, and Jerry Stiller). The first two lines of Blitzstein's translation for Mack The Knife (which has been recorded by numerous artists such as Bobby Darin, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald) read:
"Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear.
And he shows them, pearly white."
Brecht was alluding to Mack's jackknife rather than one of the ocean's great predators. In 2013, a film crew working for Discovery Channel captured footage of a pregnant great white shark (estimated to be 20 feet long and 50 years old) swimming near Mexico's Guadalupe Island.

2015 has been filled with news about sharks.

On July 19,  Mick Fanning (a professional surfer from Tweed Heads, New South Wales, Australia) was competing in the finals of the J-Bay Open 2015 in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa when a great white shark came up behind him. Because the sports event was receiving live coverage, millions of viewers around the world watched video replays of the moment when the shark approached.

Brian Kilmeade (the reigning intellectual on Fox & Friends) commented "You would think they would have a way of clearing the waters for a competition at this level, but I guess they don't... The question is: Does he get back on, does he go back out there, or does he do something else? Does he go to a department store and start going into sales?"
  • On August 17, in the waters off Monomoy, Massachusetts, a great white shark was caught on camera as it attempted to catch a seal for dinner.
  • On August 29th, Discovery Channel launches its first "Shweekend" of programming devoted exclusively to sharks.
In 1975, when Steven Spielberg's thriller, Jaws, was released into theatres, it helped to cement an image in the public's mind of a great white shark as a merciless predator. The powerful images seared into people's memories from watching Jaws do nothing, however, to obliterate the horror of the shark finning industry (which is having a hugely destructive impact on the oceanic food chain).

For millions of years, sharks ruled the ocean. In a very short and tragic period of time, man has become the dominant predator on land and sea.

* * * * * * * * *
If, as they say, timing is everything, then the producers of MERU had extraordinary prescience in choosing to release their breathtaking documentary about "the other great white shark" in late August. Traditionally, this is a time of year when news is slow as people take their final summer vacations, head to Burning Man, or prepare to send their children back to school.

As someone who is a total klutz and rather fearful of heights, trust me whey I say that this staggeringly beautiful film by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is the perfect armchair adventure (especially if you've been sweating like a pig through one of the hottest summers on record in the United States).

The "Shark's Fin" on Mount Meru

Standing some 21,000 feet above India's sacred Ganges River, the notorious "Shark's Fin" surface of Mount Meru can be as formidable and fatal as any encounter with a great white shark. In fact, Mount Meru poses more difficult challenges than such legendary peaks as Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro. A sacred mountain with cultural relevance to Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, it represents the center of all physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes.

In October 2008, when Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk made their first attempt to scale Mount Meru's legendary Shark's Fin, what had been planned as a week-long trip turned into a 20-day expedition battling sub-zero temperatures. With their food rations nearly depleted and Ozturk suffering from the severity of the weather, the team was forced to abandon its climb --  even though they were only 100 meters from Mount Meru's summit.

By September 2011, when they reunited to make another attempt at scaling Mount Meru, Ozturk had been through extensive physical therapy, Chin had nearly lost his life in an avalanche, and Anker (who, in 1991, had located the body of George Mallory on Mount Everest) had married the widow of his best friend, mentor, and hero, Alex Lowe.

While many documentaries about mountain climbing seem to drip with testosterone, MERU proves the need for clinical precision while braving intense weather conditions. The human backstory for each of the team's members is also a key ingredient in the film's success. As MERU's editor, Vasarhely explains that:
"Despite the fact that this film reaches an apex of 21,000 feet, I felt MERU had to also remain firmly on the ground. As someone who isn’t particularly comfortable with heights, it was important for me that MERU be more than just about mountain climbing. It’s a truly personal story, one about pursuing one’s passions (although in this case those passions are unusually extreme). In these kinds of stories, people often get caught up in the accomplishment, but there’s another side, of course. Being married to Jimmy, I’m especially interested in what the female characters in the story -- the ones back home, often wringing their hands -- had to say. How did they tolerate the risks these climbers, their closest family members, take as part of their professional careers? What drove their lives, and what kept them steady? ”

In addition to being a fine white-knuckle armchair adventure, MERU turns out to be an exceptional demonstration of the risks, dangers, and extremes that Anker's close friends will go to in order to help him realize his life's dream. Here's the trailer:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vamping and Camping in the Grandest Style

As one looks back on American history, it's easy to identify certain demographics such as the GI Generation (born 1901-1926) and the Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). Then, of course, there are the Alphabet generations  -- Generation X (born 1965-1980), Generation Y (born 1981-2000), and Generation Z (those born after 2001).

Generation Y has recently become synonymous with the term Millenials while Generation Z has become synonymous with the term Boomlets. While some wax nostalgic about the so-called Greatest Generation (born 1927-1945), little is said about the Lost Generation (people who died of AIDS). Two factors which distinguish this group is that it includes members of three chronological generations and that the death toll from the "gay plague" was particularly devastating for those in the arts.

Some of these people were in the early stages of their careers; others had a long list of artistic achievements under their belt. Some were at a point where their careers were beginning to draw major attention; others were overachievers who excelled in multiple disciplines.

One of the great polymaths lost to the AIDS epidemic was playwright, director, cinephile, opera queen, filmmaker, and actor Charles Ludlam. In 1967 (at the age of 24) he founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and, for two decades worked as its artistic director, scenic designer, resident playwright, and star, performing in a tiny basement theatre at One Sheridan Square.

Charles Ludlam and Black Eyed Susan in a scene from 1971's
Eunuchs of the Forbidden City (Photo by Leandro Katz)

Ludlam's productions (which included Turds in Hell, Der Ring Gott Farblonjet, Bluebeard, and Salammbo) were notable for their delicious and often hysterically funny use of high camp, low humor, wretched excess, tacky sets, and bawdy costumes. This rare audio recording from a performance of Bluebeard gives a sense of what Ludlam sounded like onstage.

While Andy Warhol and the actors who frequented his studio (The Factory) gained plenty of notoriety, Ludlam, his lover (Everett Quinton), and their theatrical friends kept shocking and entertaining audiences by pushing the envelope of gay theatre as far as they could. During his time with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Ludlam wrote, directed, and starred in 29 plays.

How does one describe Ludlam and his art? Try to imagine a man with little money and an overly fertile imagination -- a soul who embodied the creative instincts of John Waters (a brazen and transgressive artist), Taylor Mac (a flamboyant gender-bending artist), Robin Williams (a manic diva of improvisation), and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (a polymath noted for his meticulous attention to detail) and you might just get a glimmer of the work that was yet to come when this talented man died of AIDS on May 28, 1987 at the age of 44 (his obituary ran on the front page of The New York Times).

Ludlam was very much an Off-Off-Broadway phenomenon. However, during the 1970s he began experimenting with 16-mm film.  I could only find a six-minute clip from 1986's The Sorrows of Dolores (which starred Everett Quinton, Black-Eyed Susan, and Richard France) on YouTube.

However, Queer/Art/Film digitally remastered The Museum of Wax (which starred Ludlam, Everett Quinton, and Richard France). A 21-minute silent/noir short shot by someone who had a keen understanding of theatrical lighting, The Museum of Wax was given a new score by Peter Golub.

The original print and digital masters of Ludlam's film (which had not been seen in more than 20 years) are now archived at The Outfest Legacy Project Film Gallery at the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Thankfully, The Museum of Wax can also be seen on YouTube.

Ludlam's great strength, however, was as a theatre animal. Unlike many others, he was a man with a fervid and clearly defined artistic vision. His manifesto entitled "Ridiculous Theatre, Scourge of Human Folly" states:
Aim: To get beyond nihilism by revaluing combat.

Axioms to a theater for ridicule:
  1. You are a living mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low.
  2. The things one takes seriously are one's weaknesses.
  3. Just as many people who claim a belief in God disprove it with their every act, so too there are those whose every deed, though they say there is no God, is an act of faith.
  4. Evolution is a conscious process.
  5. Bathos is that which is intended to be sorrowful but because of the extremity of its expression becomes comic. Pathos is that which is meant to be comic but because of the extremity of its expression becomes sorrowful. Some things which seem to be opposites are actually different degrees of the same thing.
  6. The comic hero thrives by his vices. The magic hero is destroyed by his virtue. Moral paradox is the crux of the drama.
  7. The theater is a humble materialist enterprise which seeks to produce riches of the imagination, not the other way around. The theater is an event and not an object. Theater workers need not blush and conceal their desperate struggle to pay the landlords their rents. Theater without the stink of art.
Instructions for use: This is a farce, not a Sunday school. Illustrate hedonistic calculus. Test out a dangerous idea, a theme that threatens to destroy one's whole value system. Treat the material in a madly farcical manner without losing the seriousness of the theme. Show how paradoxes arrest the mind. Scare yourself a bit along the way.
Charles Ludlam (Photo courtesy of the N.Y. Public Library)

* * * * * * * * *
Since his death in 1987 (three months after he was diagnosed with AIDS), Ludlam's most frequently performed play has been The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984), a stage farce in which two male actors perform 35 quick costume changes as they tackle a variety of characters. I was lucky enough to see Ludlam and Quinton perform in the original production of Irma Vep late in 1985.

Everett Quinton and Charles Ludlam performing in
The Mystery of Irma Vep at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company

This summer, the California Shakespeare Theater unveiled a new production of The Mystery of Irma Vep staged by its outgoing artistic director, Jonathan Moscone. Upon entering the Bruns Amphitheater, I was immediately struck by the sheer luxuriousness of Douglas Schmidt's facile set (which frames a playing area more than twice as large as what Ludlam and Everett inhabited at One Sheridan Square).

For scenes set at England's Mandacrest Estate as well as one scene set in an Egyptian tomb, Schmidt brought a a delicious combination of elegance and camp to the production. Thanks to sound designer Cliff Caruthers, the audience was treated to wonderful clips from the film scores of numerous grade B movies prior to the show and during intermission.

In marked contrast to the original 1984 production, this was a class act all around (which only goes to show how well this play -- and its use of drag -- have progressed in 30 years). All one needs to do is examine the costume work by Katherine Roth to realize that Irma Vep has aged with amazing grace.

Lady Enid (Danny Scheie) and Jane Twisden (Liam Vincent)
in The Mystery of Irma Vep (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Danny Scheie as Lady Enid in The Mystery of Irma Vep
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Lady Enid (Danny Scheie) and Jane Twisden (Liam Vincent)
in The Mystery of Irma Vep (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although Ludlam's play relies on two skilled male actors who can change costumes, dialects, and genders on a dime, it requires a much more manic performance style than any of the plays from the Greater Tuna franchise. With Bay area regulars Danny Scheie and Liam Vincent doing the honors, Moscone paced the show beautifully. I was especially delighted that he let the audience witness one of Vincent's costume changes between scenes so people could understand how a quick-change costume must be built.

Jane Twisden (Liam Vincent) and Nicodemus Underwood (Danny 
Scheie) in The Mystery of Irma Vep (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Over the years, Danny Scheie has become somewhat of a local legend, delivering as much ham to Bay area stages as Hormel does to Safeway. A gifted clown who can milk a laugh with craft and cunning, deliver a zinger with deadly aim, work a costume like a mischievous fashion model, and convulse an audience with a silent grimace or roll of his eyes, Scheie's performance was like watching a well-oiled production line staffed by Lady Irma (Lord Edgar Hillcrest's possibly deceased first wife),  Lady Enid (Lord Edgar's noticeably pale second wife), Nicodemus Underwood (the lecherous groundsman of Mandacrest Estate), Alcazar (an Egyptian tour guide with access to a tomb with a view), and Pev Amri (a ravenous, sex-crazed mummy who makes her entrance from a plush sarcophagus while dancing to the beat of "It's Raining Men").

While Liam Vincent's costumes as Lord Edgar Hillcrest and Jane Twisden (Lord Edgar's housekeeper and Lady Irma's former maid) were decidedly less glamorous than his stage partner's, Vincent provided the kind of stalwart character support that proudly holds its own against a stage animal like Scheie without ever stepping on his colleague's toes, hems, or lines.

A notorious culture vulture, Charle Ludlam fashioned The Mystery of Irma Vep as part penny dreadful and part drag theatre, combined with a spoof of Victorian melodrama. His script includes references to such film classics as 1939's Wuthering Heights, 1940's Rebecca, 1941's The Wolf Man, and 1944's The Mummy's Curse. I can think of no other playwright who could provoke belly laughs from a devilishly demure and cattily competitive dulcimer duet devoid of any signs of sisterly love or an old-fashioned burlesque skit based on one's ability to sightread a string of crude Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Lady Enid (Danny Scheie) and Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Liam
Vincent in The Mystery of Irma Vep  (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Filled with werewolves, vampires, sarcophagi, and wolfsbane, this Calshakes production of The Mystery of Irma Vep was aided immensely by Domenique Lozano's contribution as a dialect coach and the lighting design by Alex Nichols. When the play ends and the audience returns to reality, it's interesting to remember that they have just been thoroughly entertained by a masterful farce that was written, directed, and performed with gusto by some extremely talented gay men.

Performances of The Mystery of Irma Vep continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre through September 6th (click here to order tickets).

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Planes, Trains, and Musicals

As time marches on from decade to decade, one of the surest signs of change can be found in travelogues and documentaries that capture how new designs and technology alter the transportation industry. More than half a century after they were made (and in a style that might seem quite corny), these films demonstrate the changing demographics of those who have embraced new options in mass transit.

A recent article entitled The First Boeing 727 Prepares For Its Last Flight (published on described how a pioneering airliner was being prepared for its final journey to an aviation museum near Seattle. Two short films offer a remarkable contrast between the giddy optimism which provided the foundation for a 1952 TWA promo and the precise technology used in the landing process for an Airbus A380 aircraft on the final leg of a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco.

Although it's not always always feasible to get a plane onstage, there are ways to evoke the mystique of aviation in a musical comedy format. Cnsider the following scenes from 1970's Company, 1987's Nixon in China, and 2011's Catch Me If You Can.

* * * * * * * * *
For many years, buses and trains were the default vehicles for mass transit. One day, while poking around on YouTube, I came across two fascinating short films documenting the Third Avenue elevated rail line which used to run through Manhattan and The Bronx. The first film is about the last days of the "El" while the second film (to my shock and amazement) uses Wanda Landowska's recording of Haydn's Concerto No. 11 in D Major for harpsichord as its soundtrack.

At the same time that the Third Avenue El was nearing its end, luxury train travel was hitting a new peak.

Not surprisingly, trains have maintained a steady presence in Broadway musicals.

In 1971, when Cy Coleman composed the score for On the 20th Century, he captured the pulsing energy of a train in motion. When the musical was revived in 2015 by the Roundabout Theatre Company, the quartet of tap-dancing railroad porters appeared in a filmed promo for the show.

In 1984, Andrew Lloyd Weber took an anthropomorphic approach to trains with a new rock musical entitled Starlight Express in which a child dreams that his toy trains have come alive. Although the show only lasted for 761 performances on Broadway, it ran for 7,406 performances in London and was extremely popular in Germany. The show's big gimmick? Each member of the cast represents a specific locomotive from the child's train set and performs the entire show on roller skates, ..

* * * * * * * * *
While the United States struggles with the concept of building high speed rail networks that can offer a practical alternative to air travel, I took advantage of the August doldrums to watch a fascinating documentary that had been featured in the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival. What sets The Iron Ministry apart from most films about trains is that it captures different socioeconomic levels of China's vast population during that society's transition from the old-fashioned "green skin" trains to the new high speed bullet trains that Chinese officials are putting into service with a keen eye to the future.

Ironically, the three years spent filming The Iron Ministry coincided with the downfall of China's Ministry of Railways (largely due to corruption scandals), which was dissolved and replaced by a merger of the State-owned China CNR Corporation Limited and China South Locomotive & Rolling Stock Corporation Limited, to be called the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation.

Shot by J.P. Sniadecki as he rode the rails (and was frequently asked by railroad employees to stop filming), The Iron Ministry captures the sights and sounds of train travel by someone who is obviously in love with the phenomenon. As Sniadecki explains:
"To capture as many different encounters as possible, I took trains throughout China, striving to be thorough without a need to be exhaustive, compelled more by the desire for movement and encounter than by any documentary notion of coverage. I hopped on trains in many different corners of China, as well as through the major arteries of the railway system. Some rides were 40+ hours, others were 20 minutes. I never had a clear goal for each journey.

Ernst [Karel] is an amazing sound artist. I have informal training in music as well, so we approached the film’s sound design as a sonic composition. Attention to attack, release, resonant frequencies, atmosphere, dynamic range, and tonality all played a part in the design. We were open to and excited about the musicality of the train itself, whether by including songs actually played and recorded on the train, or by using the train sounds themselves to compose something akin to musique concrete."

Because it was not filmed as marketing tool for China's new high-speed rail network, The Iron Ministry captures multiple levels of society as people move around a huge nation. Some scenes show farmers boarding the trains with loads of fresh produce while others show a peasant seen butchering and selling meat while seated on the floor outside the main cabin of a railroad car.

Some scenes involve young women discussing whether they want to find another factory job in a big city or look for some kind of work that does not require them to be stuck on a production line for 12 or more hours per day. Businessmen are seen traveling from one city to another as idealistic students in another compartment debate whether they should remain in China or attempt to emigrate to North America, where they might have better options and more freedom to pursue their dreams.

Passenger attendants pose on China's new high-speed
trains on a new rail line from Beijing to Zhengzhou

If you think Amtrak’s service is terrible, you'll enjoy watching a mischievous little boy aboard one of the older trains lecture the people around him from his perch on an upper bunk with the following words of wisdom:
“All passengers, your attention please. The 3838-438 train from the United States to Afghanistan is about to depart. We ask that those who are not aboard please take someone else’s luggage, take someone else’s wife, and hurry aboard. Those who have explosives, bombs, and other inflammable materials with them please hurry aboard and ignite them where there are contribute to our nation’s population control policy. The train is moving fast, so please extend your hands and head out of the window as far as possible, making it easier to lose them all at once.

This is a civilized train, so please feel free to piss, shit, and throw trash all over the aisle. Other passengers may spit on your face and you may spit in the mouths of others, which is good for the thorough absorption of protein. As a disposable train, this one has been operating safely for 30 years. If you discover your head over your feet, you’ve arrived at the last stop: Heaven.”
While some people are seen playing cards, ordering snacks, and chatting with fellow passengers (there's a fascinating scene with two young Muslims), the majority of passengers try to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

As the filmmaker explains:
"The montage of The Iron Ministry constructs a singular train, as only through cinema can the old collectivist era 'green skin' trains be directly coupled to not only the later air-conditioned 'red skin' trains but also the newest high-speed bullet trains of today. As this cinema-train traverses the vast interiors of China, the camera also traverses a visual history of Chinese railway technology and infrastructure. Despite the process of steadily phasing out older 'green skin' trains (the train from Zizhong to Chengdu with the meat sellers and the peasants loaded with produce has already been eliminated), the coexistence and varied use of technologies belonging to different eras comes in and out of focus throughout the journey.

My hope was actually to depict a cross-section of the different trains operating within the Ministry of Railways, and the different carriage spaces of each class on the train. These vast disparities in class and culture, which we all know are a dimension of Chinese society, are nonetheless made more vivid and apparent within the space of the cinema-train. One of the ironies of the film, perhaps, is that against this backdrop China is making huge investments in social infrastructure…while I can hardly get a train to anywhere in much of my own country."
If you're the kind of person who hates being crammed together on subway trains with people who are poor, smelly, and unkempt, the segments of the The Iron Ministry that were shot on China's old "green-skin" trains will reinforce your worst prejudices against train travel. However, if you've reached your tipping point dealing with the petty aggravations of the airline industry, you'll find China's new high-speed rail a tempting vision of the future. Finally, if you are someone who loves the romance and history of train travel, you'll find The Iron Ministry utterly fascinating. Here's the trailer:

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Beware Intelligent Men Bearing Caustic Wits

While some people continue to think of Ronald Reagan as the man who could do no wrong, those who remember his administration's participation in arms trading and union busting have a less favorable image of the 40th President of the United States. Few, however, will deny that under Reagan's watch, Americans began to experience a steady and calculated dumbing down of the educational system which resulted in surging waves of anti-intellectualism. While it may not be fair to equate brains with beauty, the sorry results speak for themselves.

Those of us who read Jonathan Swift's legendary 1726 satire entitled Gulliver's Travels may recall a tribe of creatures named the Yahoos. According to Wikipedia:
"Swift describes them as being filthy and with unpleasant habits, resembling human beings far too closely for the liking of protagonist Lemuel Gulliver... The Yahoos are primitive creatures obsessed with 'pretty stones' they find by digging in mud, thus representing the distasteful materialism and ignorant elitism Swift encountered in Britain. Hence the term 'yahoo' has come to mean 'a crude, brutish or obscenely coarse person.'"
Joanne B. Freeman recently published an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times entitled The Long History of Political Idiocy. In a post entitled Willfully Ignorant Howler Monkeys on Daily Kos, diarist Sninkypoo wrote:
"There's no political will on the right to act with intellectual honesty and take immediate, urgent, war effort-style action on climate change. All the vast majority of politicians (left and right) want to do is get along to go along, appeal to their base, take Big Daddy Oil's money, and get reelected."
Today's American politics are crippled by a combination of media-induced fear, appalling ignorance, self-hating anti-intellectualism, and a strategy of aiming to please an audience that represents the lowest common denominator. As a result, our society thrives on idiotic campaign stunts like these pathetic attempts to create a viral video.

A curious by-product of these "shit-for-brains" shenanigans is that when genuinely smart people who possess fierce and formidable intellects (Barney Frank, Bill NyeElizabeth Warren, Barack Obama) speak rationally, some listeners can't help but feel intimidated, insecure, irate, and impotent. Why?  Because when a person with a large and precise vocabulary can explain complex issues in reasonably simple terms, the ease and grace with which they do so makes the knuckle draggers quake in their designer shoes. It also tends to let the hot air out of pompous buffoons like Chris "the national teachers union deserves a punch in the face" Christie, Rick "Oops" Perry, and Rick (the frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the by-product of anal sex) Santorum.

John Scalzi's stunning article, Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is, offers a brilliant and beautifully written perspective on a problem currently plaguing American society. Just listen to what everyone's favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, had to say during a recent appearance in Sydney, Australia as he discussed racism and scientific illiteracy!

With Republican debates filling the stage with stooges who equate their preening narcissism with wisdom, it seems as if intelligent discourse has become an endangered phenomenon. Thankfully, two new documentaries do a smashing job of reminding viewers what it's like when fearless, impassioned intellectuals not only have the courage of their convictions, but don't hesitate to speak their minds.

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Larry Kramer has been called many things (abrasive, loudmouthed, fear-mongering, obnoxious, divisive, hysterical, and dangerous) over the course of his long and prolific career as a writer and activist, but no one has ever dared to call him dull or stupid. Born on June 25, 1935 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 2015 has been a banner year for one of the LGBT community's most lauded elders.
Larry Kramer at his 80th birthday celebration

Considering his long history of health problems (an AIDS diagnosis, a liver transplant), turning 80 was a milestone Kramer couldn't always be confident that he would reach. There has never been any doubt, however, about his achievements as a writer and public scold.
  • Kramer received an Academy Award nomination for his work on the screenplay for 1969's Women in Love
  • In 1978, his outrageously and deeply controversial novel, Faggots, was published by Random House. A satire on gay promiscuity in the 1970s, it featured a description of a notorious gay sex club named The Toilet Bowl which, among its themed rooms, included a bar known as The Lusitania Lounge ("all fitted out most smartly with the gleanings from a sunken Cunard liner" that had "a porthole-backed crush bar"); the Jackie O (a room that had "50 urinals standing up along with all those men in front of them" and its sister suite, the Radziwill Annex ("where there were 50 urinals lying down, along with all those men in front of them").
David Webster and Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer: In Love & Anger opens with its protagonist's famous "Plague" speech. From there on, its powerful sweep offers a crash course in how Kramer's response to the AIDS crisis helped to change the way new medical treatments were made available to the public by the National Institutes of Health. It also shows how ACT-UP's infamous "die-ins" (including a protest at St. Patrick's Cathedral) succeeded in drawing media attention to a spurned segment of the population who, as they faced death, had nothing left to lose.

While the documentary shows Kramer in robust health and, later in life, as a frail senior citizen, it teaches viewers what can happen when one fiercely intelligent man (who is not willing to take "no" for an answer) speaks truth to power. Here's the trailer:

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If one ventures into the political wars that now dominate cable television, it often seems as if the level of discourse has sunk to that of a professional wrestling match. People (especially when the screen is divided up among various pundits) are so busy talking over each other's voices that they can't be bothered to listen to what's actually being said.

From the morally reprehensible Mike Huckabee to the perverse insanity of Ann Coulter; from the preening narcissism of Donald Trump to the clumsy cluelessness of Jeb! Bush, today's political news scene has deteriorated into a toxic sideshow in which the most reliable truth tellers have been comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, and John Fugelsang.

A fascinating new documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville looks back at how the personal and political rancor shared by two intellectuals snobs helped to develop the antagonistic formats that have become so familiar to today's television viewers.

Poster art for Best of Enemies

Back in 1968, when there were only three major networks (no cable), ABC's ratings were in the toilet. Faced with the challenges of covering that year's Republican National Convention in Miami Beach and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (which was ruled with an iron fist by Mayor Richard J. Daley), ABC's corporate executives hit on a novel idea. Why not get two political commentators to debate each other on air during the conventions? Their final choice was bound to be an incendiary pairing.

William F. Buckley, Jr. initially grabbed the public's attention in 1951 with the publication of his first book (God and Man at Yale) when he was only 25 years old. Having founded National Review magazine in 1955, Buckley would eventually write more than 50 books (including several espionage novels). A conservative Christian with a monstrous ego, his sneering condescension was impossible to ignore.

In 1948, Gore Vidal's depiction of a homosexual relationship between characters in his third novel (The City and the Pillar) shocked many readers. His love of history and politics led to the creation of such plays as The Best Man (1960), Romulus (1962), and An Evening With Richard Nixon and.... (1972).  His historical novels (including Julian, Burr, 1876, The Golden Age, and Lincoln) stand in sharp contrast to his wildly imaginative 1968 satire, Myra Breckenridge.

As filmmaker Robert Gordon notes:
"I was a kid during their 1968 tête-à-tête offensives. Bill Buckley’s Firing Line was broadcast on Sunday mornings, what we watched when there were no cartoons and only preachers. A master of the medium,  he engaged children with his mannerisms and adults with his ideas. Vidal was a man of the left, his historical novels lining all modern home libraries; apart from the movement but also a part of it, he was the nation’s historian, and also its augur. Decades later, in 2010, my friend Tom Graves obtained a bootlegged copy of their 1968 debates and he screened them at a museum. The audience stayed long after the last image, parsing the performances and the issues." 
Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. get made up for a
television appearance in a scene from The Best of Enemies
"No one today speaks like these men, but their confrontations ring so contemporary. In the focused light of the 1968 national television camera, the seeds are planted for our present media landscape, when the spectacle trumps the content of argument. Each side today, like these two men, sees the other as malignant, promulgating views catastrophic for America; strident partisanship is virile patriotism and compromise is castration. These Vidal-Buckley debates forecast the present state of civic discourse, when heated and abbreviated by camera lights and corporate sponsors."
William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal
in a scene from The Best of Enemies
"I was intimidated to enter the world of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley. A great part of this film’s initial attraction was the depth and breadth of these two huge characters, and of their luxurious language. Their sense of theater makes their knowledge entertaining, and their enmity sizzles like a fireworks fuse. Their East Coast WASP confidence, their easy command of the classics, the masterful rhetoric -- it makes a southern boy feel so unschooled."

No matter what a viewer's age may be, watching Best of Enemies is a fascinating display of two tart-tongued elitists debating each other with fangs bared and no love lost between them. Think of it as a cage match in which each contestant must rely on his cultural literacy, searing wit, and huge vocabulary in order to win.

By an odd coincidence, this documentary about the Buckley-Gore debates has been released at the same time as Jen Lancaster's fourth novel (The Best of Enemies). Only one of them has a trailer: